By Jose Saldana
Losing out on the NCAA Tournament can be a difficult fact to accept, but the ability to host NIT games is a decent consolation prize.
Third-seeded Stanford men’s basketball (18-15) will continue its season against sixth-seeded BYU (24-10) in the first round of the NIT.
The Cardinal needed to win the Pac-12 Tournament if it wanted a bid in March Madness, but it was eliminated by UCLA in the second round after Bruins guard Aaron Holiday scored 34 points to defeat Stanford 88-77.
Even after ending in a three-way tie for third place in the conference, Stanford’s postseason dreams weren’t a certainty due to a 6-7 nonconference record.
“I haven’t studied anything enough,” Stanford head coach Jerod Haase responded when asked about Stanford’s postseason chances after losing to UCLA. “I think there are a couple ways to look at things, and one is by the numbers, and our numbers are probably not going to stack up favorably when you look at our entire body of work.”
However, all concerns were assuaged when, on Selection Sunday, the Cardinal were revealed as the third seed in the upper-right bracket. This meant Stanford would host the first round as the higher seed, before the semifinals, plays at home.
The NIT is an invitational for 32 teams that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. The tournament is used for experimentation and this year won’t be any different. The 2018 NIT will feature four 10 minute quarters (men’s basketball is currently 20 minute halves), a longer three-point line and a wider free throw lane.
“It’s perfect,” Coach Haase said on the changes. “It’s a great time to try these changes. [The NIT] provides a forum to see what effect it has on the game.”
BYU is solid team which didn’t do as well in the WCC. Teams in the WCC need to win the tournament or have very few losses to make a bid for the tournament. The Cougars didn’t do either as they had a 11-7 conference record and lost to Gonzaga in the WCC championship.
The Cougars is 70th in KenPom and 69th in RPI while the Cardinal are 84th and 88th, respectively. However, Stanford’s rankings are bogged down in large part due to losses without senior guard Dorian Pickens and/or freshman forward KZ Okpala.
However, BYU did have one of its best wins of the season after defeating St. Mary’s 85-72 in the WCC semifinals. St. Mary’s was a potential tournament team, which many pundits believed should’ve been in, but the Gaels were left out and they are now a one-seed in the NIT.
“They had a great run in the conference tournament, getting to the conference final,” Coach Haase said on BYU. “They don’t make a ton of threes, but they do a nice job of getting the ball inside. They are good at dribble penetration, so we have to guard the [paint] which has been a theme all year.”
The Cougars are led by junior guard Elijah Bryant (17.9 points per game) and sophomore forward Yoeli Childs (18.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per game). Both Bryant and Childs were named to the All-WCC First Team and sophomore guard TJ Haws was an honorable mention.
Bryant can shoot the rock, hitting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc and 87.3 from the free throw line. Childs has a different game as he operates more in the paint area. His 5.4 free throws shots per game, which ranks first on his team.
Against most teams, the Cardinal switch to zone when the opposing offense is scoring too easily. They might do that on Wednesday if Bryant or Childs are scoring with ease. But when Stanford is in man, Okpala could start on Bryant. The 6-foot-8 freshman has been guard the conference’s best guards all of conference play, so if he doesn’t start on Bryant, he could end up guarding him by the end of the game.
Senior forward Reid Travis could have a field day on the boards against a bad defensive rebounding team in the Cougars. BYU is 209th in total rebounds, while the Cardinal are 36th.
Getting second chance points against a solid defense (BYU ranks 50th in scoring defense) will be imperative, so Travis and the other forwards on the team need to attack the glass.
The Cardinal can use this game and the NIT to find out how to clean their turnover streak. BYU is 218th in forced turnovers in the nation, so Coach Haase has a chance to figure out how to lessen the turnovers, especially from freshman guard Daejon Davis (4.0 per game).
Additionally, this game serves as an extra cherry for the seniors who thought they had their last game in Maples a few weeks ago.
“As a senior, I want to leave these freshman with a good legacy and something they can build on going forward,” Humphrey said. “The NCAA [Tournament] would have been a great way to do that, but this is still a lot to play for.”
Stanford turns on the lights of Maples Pavilion for at least one more men’s basketball game when BYU comes on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast by ESPNU.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.